Category Archives: Feature

Christian Worship and the Shortage of Space

August 2018 Feature

Churches in Singapore have to deal with a reality that is unique, compared to many of their counterparts in other countries. Many of the churches here have been built on land that has a leasehold tenure of 30 years (or are located in buildings that have a similar leasehold arrangement). Every 30 years, these churches need to renew their leases to use the space for another 30 years, at the prevailing market rates. The net effect is a financial burden that few churches in other countries have to bear. Based on some estimates, the additional financial commitment  necessary to sustain these leases can take up as much as 20% of a church’s annual budget, considering the typical weekly combined worship attendance of between 1,000 and 1,500 worshippers.

Given such burdens, while churches that are sitting on freehold properties can channel much of their funds to useful ministries, other less fortunate churches are constantly on a fund-raising mode to sustain the use of their facilities. Many churches do so with the hope that, once the lease is renewed, their congregations would continue to grow. This would hopefully lessen the financial burden, per capita, for the next lease renewal. However, that hope is also limited by the fact that the church can only accommodate so many additional members on a Sunday, as far as the physical space is concerned. This is quite a sombre language to use in talking about the ministry of the gospel! But it is a stark reality that many churches in Singapore have to grapple with.

Coupled with this is another trend, which is the growing number of Christians. According to the latest population census report in Singapore (2010), the general population grew at the rate of approximately 2.34% p.a. in the past 10 years. The number of Christian worshippers, however, grew from 588,000 in 2000 to 930,000 in 2010 (as reported in the Straits Times on 23 Feb 2015), an annualised growth rate of 4.7% p.a. That is double the rate of the population increase. While the data on the physical space allocated for religious use in Singapore (especially for use by Christian churches) is not available to the public, it is nonetheless conceivable that the space crunch for churches in Singapore will be increasing in the years to come, based on the trends mentioned here. In other words, Christians in Singapore have a problem at hand.

So, what is the solution? Among other things, the Singapore government is encouraging the development of a new approach to the sharing of space for Christian worship — a hub for multiple churches to use. Quite recently, such a project was announced: a $25m hub was proposed at a location in Jurong. Despite some teething issues in that particular project, such an approach can alleviate the space constraints to some extent. However, one might ask, will that be an adequate measure in the long run, given the trends? How effectively would a project for 3 or 4 churches be a solution for the more than 500 Protestant congregations (according to the Straits Times report mentioned above) that exist in Singapore? A more profound solution, I think, have to come from Christians themselves.

For the past two thousand years, most Christian communities have their worship on Sundays. This goes back all the way to the book of Acts, where it is mentioned that the Christians gathered together on the first day of the week, Sunday (Acts 20:7). Apparently, it was chosen because our Lord Jesus resurrected on a Sunday, and it is also the first day of creation (Justin Martyr, I Apology, 67). In 1 Cor 16:2, the apostle Paul also indicates that the church gathered on “the first day of the week”.  At about 100 A.D., the Apostolic Father Ignatius also mentioned that the church met on a “Lord’s Day” (Letter to the Magnesians, 9). So, with some minor exceptions, Christians have gathered together on Sundays for worship since the earliest days of the church, as far as we know. However, can some adjustment be made to accommodate the growing number of worshippers in our churches?

Perhaps, in this regard, churches in Singapore should consider holding their worship services on Saturday evenings, in addition to Sundays. This is what some churches are already doing, in order to accommodate the growth in the size of their congregations. If we were to follow the Jewish reckoning of the day, our Lord’s day would have started on a Saturday evening, just as the Jewish Sabbath would have begun from Friday evening. In that way, Christians can still remain faithful to the significance of worshipping the Lord on a Sunday as a church.

As a Presbyterian pastor, I can in fact go one step further to take into consideration what Scripture says with regard to the question of worshipping on a Saturday evening. Regarding the keeping of special days, the Bible says that whether a person considers one day to be sacred, or everyday to be sacred, it is fine as long as he does so to the Lord (Rom 14:6). No one is supposed to make the observance of certain days a legal requirement (Gal 4:9-10), nor should Christians allow anyone to judge them on such a basis (Col 2:16-17).

Admittedly, the original contexts of these biblical injunctions are not whether a church can worship on a day other than Sunday. Nonetheless, I think the overall principle that can be drawn from these passages is that the specific day in which the church gathers is itself not the most crucial issue. In other words, whether Christians come together for their weekly worship on a Saturday evening or a Sunday, there is some room for flexibility. Then again, given the deep significance of Christian worship on a Sunday mentioned earlier (with Saturday evening being an acceptable time-frame according to the Jewish reckoning), I would not venture further to suggest that any day of the week would be acceptable. It is still important, in my view, for the church service to gravitate towards the Lord’s Day (Sunday) itself, which is how Christians have regarded it since the earliest times.

Given the long-term implications of the severe cost of land use in Singapore, it is time for Christians to rethink their use of the available church space. It is not just about using the church premises for running other community services like kindergartens during the week. It is also about allowing the church to accommodate a much larger number of believers. This must first begin with a renewal of our understanding of worship, and a reconsideration of what it means to come together as a congregation to render praise to God as a body of Christ, when we listen to the proclamation of his word. It requires a rethinking of our theology, and a recalibration of our set practices. This is something that the theologians from the West do not need to address, since it is not the situation their churches are facing! If churches in Singapore are able to make adjustments and seriously consider having worship services on Saturday evenings in addition to Sunday, it would contribute significantly towards alleviating our space constraints in the long term.

May the Lord grant us wisdom as we make decisions that would serve the interests of the kingdom of God and remain faithful to his sacred word! Amen.


Rev Dr Leonard Wee is New Testament lecturer at Trinity Theological College (TTC), and an ordained minister with the Presbyterian Church in Singapore. He obtained his M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Durham and holds degrees from the National University of Singapore (B.B.A.) and Dallas Theological Seminary (Th.M.).

A Common Platform

July 2018 Feature

For anyone living in this century, it is evident that one of the contemporary issues facing the world today is that of religious diversity. From the perspective of a Christian, the question of the role of other religions is especially acute given the ultimate claims to truth and salvation that Jesus Christ has made.

However, this phenomenon of multiple religious traditions is not a new one. The books of the Old Testament were written during times when peoples of other faiths surrounded the nation of Israel. The same holds true for the New Testament when Greco-Roman religions proliferated alongside the newly established religion of Christianity.

In some ways, this necessity to learn how to understand other religions is not unique to the Christian faith.  Every major world religion in its history has had to grapple with the existence of the “others” ever since they become conscious of the existence of one another. Each tradition has had to learn to navigate its way through its social, historical and religious contexts.

The contemporary theologian of religions, Harold Netland, has pointed out that it is increasingly important for Christians in the twenty-first century to respond to the changing religious landscape. He asserts it is possible for Christians to be firmly committed to Christ as Lord and be responsible citizens in their own countries. At the same time, he calls for new ways for Christians to respond to the other faiths rather than merely repeating the practices of the past.

As different religions attempt to co-exist, co-operate or even compete with one another for converts, it is crucial that a shared framework or language be found to avoid misunderstandings. This is especially so given there is always some level of incommensurability to religions. Words such as “God” and “salvation” can mean very different things to a Christian or a Buddhist.

The scholar of religion and philosopher, Robert McKim, has proposed that when it comes to determining what he calls “attitudes to and beliefs about others,” it is helpful to note the ranges of positions that one may adopt. He proposed that for any religion, its self-understanding with respect to another tradition can be classified under one of the following categories. That it is:

  1. The only tradition that is any good in the relevant respect
  2. The tradition that is better than other traditions in the relevant respect
  3. A tradition that is as good as other traditions in the relevant respect

These constitute the starting points for what is commonly known in the field of theology of religions as the traditional three-fold typology of exclusivist, inclusivist, and pluralist positions respectively. McKim also argues that this schema is suitable not only for theistic faiths but non-theistic ones too.

If that is so, then by utilizing a common vocabulary of terms and conceptual structure, this may allow the various traditions to participate in a form of dialogue that promotes understanding of the other. While it may not wholly nullify the difficulties to attempt to read another using only its categories, it could represent an initial step towards reducing isolationism and enhancing greater concordance.

The typology proposed above may be used with respect to issues of truth and salvation. It may also be employed concerning other matters, such as the ethical guidance provided in each religion.

While some Christian scholars have argued that the tri-fold typology which was initially proposed by Alan Race and Gavin D’Costa is skewed towards pluralism, subsequent analysis by others have shown it is, in fact, a relatively neutral logical construct that each respective position could claim to be biased in or against its stance.

Also, despite these objections, since its first proposal in the 1960s, the tri-polar schema has continued to play a significant role within Christian theology for scholars to clarify their assertions. In addition, while many other competing proposals have been put forth, none seems to be capable of replacing the traditional proposition, as seen in the recent numerous scholarly articles that continue to argue based on, either explicitly or implicitly, its underlying logical structure.

It is possible that this analytical framework could be one of the tools that the Christian tradition may offer to the broader world of inter-religious understanding, given that it was developed within itself and undergone robust discussion. As an Adjunct Lecturer at the NTU S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) for a post-graduate course entitled “Christianity and Religious Diversity,” I have found it serves as a common platform for students from various religious backgrounds to discuss features of their faiths vis-à-vis another as part of the M.Sc program.


 

Dr Tan Loe Joo is lecturer in systematic theology at Trinity Theological College.

Caring for the World’s Vulnerable Children and Families

June 2018 Feature

Sarah* and I arrived at the orphanage around the same time, I as a short term volunteer, her as the newest resident.  I assumed that I knew her story.  I assumed she had no father or mother to care for her and that the orphanage was her only option.  I later learned that she had a mother who cried as she left her at the orphanage.  Obviously, I was wrong.

The fact is Sarah’s story is the story of the majority of children living in orphanages today.  On the ground research studies have shown that, depending on the geographical location, anywhere from 50-90% of children living in orphanages have a living parent.  Not an auntie or a grandfather, a living parent.  This article will explore why children are placed in orphanages when they are not, in fact, orphans and the detrimental affects of this reality.  Further, it will discuss why, as Christians, we should care about these vulnerable children and families.  It will end by offering examples of best practices and ways forward to best serve these children and families of God.

The majority of children who live in orphanages today are there because their family is experiencing poverty or other hardships, not because they have no one who loves or wishes to care for them. Parents in this situation are left with an excruciating choice.  Parents can be “pulled” towards placing their children in an orphanage with the promise of meals, education and basic provisions.  Sometimes these provisions are there, other times they are promised but not provided.  Experts in the field note that this “pull factor” of orphanages can often circumvent other options for families in this position.

Research routinely shows that children thrive and grow as God intended when they are in a family.  Of course, this is ideally the child’s biological family – parents, grandparents, aunties and uncles.  However, we live in a broken world.  Sometimes foster families must step up to care for children when it is unsafe or inappropriate for the biological family to do so.  Conversely, research shows that growing up in an orphanage inhibits healthy development in children, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Further, orphanages often end their care when the child turns eighteen leaving them vulnerable and without the continuing support of a community or family.  No orphanage, not even the best and most reputable among them, can replace a family.

As Christians, we should be appalled that any parent has to make a choice between keeping their children at home and placing them in an orphanage.  For those of you who are parents reading this, how would you feel faced with this decision?  All three of the Synoptic Gospels call us to love our neighbor as we love our self (Matt. 22:39, Mark 12:31, Luke 10:27).  We could just as easily say that we should also “love our neighbor’s children as we love our own children.”  If faced with a sudden loss of income, an illness, or tragic loss of a spouse, what would you desire for your family and children?  Thankfully, placing one’s children in an orphanage is not the only option available.

It is abundantly clear that Jesus deeply loves and cares for children and those on the margins of society.  James 1:27 is an often quoted verse when it comes to this issue:  “Religion that is pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress…”  Wouldn’t the best way to look after the orphan in question be to keep them from becoming an “orphan” in the first place?  Wouldn’t the best option for the widow be to keep her family intact and her children at home in her care?

To do this, practitioners in the field who are working with vulnerable children and families refer to a model called the continuum of care.  Essentially, the continuum of care is a line graph that depicts on a scale the most preferred to the least preferred outcome for a vulnerable or separated child.  Put another way, this models seeks to find the best solution by putting the child’s holistic well-being at the center of the conversation.

For example, at the beginning of the continuum of care is usually “family preservation”.  If one can keep a family intact, there is no need for alternative forms of care to come into play.  Family preservation can take many forms, but often includes small business development so that the parents can obtain an income to care for their children, teaching parenting skills, free or reduced-cost child care, etc.  Often, next in the continuum is kinship care.  This means a child is placed with extended family such as a grandparent or aunt/uncle.  At the far end of the continuum of care is large scale residential facilities, as these should be used as a last resort.

Many organizations have their own continuum of care model, and while they each differ slightly, the main idea is the same: to keep children in families whenever it is safe and possible, and to use residential care as a last option.  Volunteers can use this model as a way of evaluating organizations which they choose to support.  For example, they can seek to financially support those organizations working to keep families together.  One example of an organization doing just this is Child’s I operating in Kampala, Uganda.  Child’s I works diligently to reintegrate separated children back into their family.  When this is not possible, they adhere to the continuum of care by recruiting and training local foster families to take in children.

I do not know how Sarah’s story ends.  I returned home after a month of volunteering at the orphanage in Honduras.  However, I know how I hope her story ends.  I hope it ended with Sarah being reunited with her mother.  I hope an organization provided support to her mother so that she could bring her daughter home.  There are a handful of organizations around the world providing this type of support, but more are needed.  There are too many children needlessly placed in orphanages.  As Christians, we should know the real story of the vulnerable children around the world, and the real story is that many of them have loving families who only need a little support to keep their children at home.  The real story is that often orphanages are used as a first option when they should be the last resort.  The real story is that we need to ask ourselves how we want to love our neighbor’s children so that they can experience the love of Christ through us.

*Name changed for privacy


Lyndsay Mathews holds an MA in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary where she researched the importance of family based care in developing countries. She has worked for numerous non-profits and para-church ministries focused on various social issues.

Sola Scriptura: Reality or Rhetoric?

May 2018 Feature 

Contrary to what is sometimes taught and believed, the Reformation doctrine of Sola Scriptura doesn’t teach “Scripture good, Tradition bad.” Rejection of church traditions was and is not its goal at all. The Reformation doctrine of Sola Scriptura arose amidst the noise of competing authoritative voices during the medieval ages. These included the writings of church fathers, ancient creeds, papal declarations, liturgical traditions, and pronouncements by theological faculty.

Some of these authoritative sources for guiding faith and practice unfortunately deviated significantly from scripture. Sola Scriptura was thus a doctrine which affirmed that scripture was the supreme source of authority – not the only source of authority – for Christian faith and practice. Whatever was taught, preached, and practiced needed to have good support from scripture and had to arise from good interpretation and understanding of scripture. This affirmation of a high view of scripture is the Reformation’s legacy for the Protestant church.

Evangelical Christians in Singapore today claim that we affirm the same Reformation Sola Scriptura ideal. But do we really hold on to a high view of scripture? My colleagues and I teaching at the Singapore Bible College (SBC) often have long discussions not just about how biblical illiterate the church in Singapore is. For some of us, the greater concern now has shifted to how the church in Singapore hides behind the rhetoric of supporting a high view of scripture while practicing something else in reality. That is to say, while we tightly guard the idea of making scripture the basis of Christian belief and practices, how we handle scripture in reality falls very short of the Reformation ideals.

I teach a course on Bible Study Methods at SBC.  The course allows me to introduce to my students sensible ways of reading scripture in context.  At the same time, it also allows them to surface examples of bible study discussions, devotional readings, and sermons that they have encountered which violate the principles of sensible reading taught in class. Beyond just being able to point a finger at others, students inevitably also come to a point of self-awareness. This new realization is that their diet of devotionals, sermons, bible studies, and sloppy personal reading habits that often lead them to conclusions which, while not theologically incorrect, miss out the main message of the text.

A classic example is from John 2:1-11 where we find the account of Jesus turning water into wine.  A student pointed me to a daily devotional on this passage which has strong appeal to the modern audience but would not have made sense to John’s readers. In the devotion, the author declared that because the first miracle Jesus performed had to do with small details in the kitchen, it shows that God is interested in the little things of our mundane life. God wants to have an intimate relationship with His people!

Conclusions like these are multiplied in weddings sermons, bible studies, and visits to the Cana church while on Bible lands tours. In those settings, we hear messages that affirm the value of marriage, the legitimacy of drinking wine, the need for motherly interventions, as well as how the Christian life is made so much more complete when the believer opens his/her mind to daily miracles.

But is the big message of John 2:1-11 about marriage, wine, mothers, or looking out for miracles in our lives? There is no denying that all of the above conclusions from John 2:1-11 can bring encouragement to the Christian. What is important to note however is that settling for these conclusions force readers and listeners to miss the key points of bible passages and hence the intention and message of their authors.

When John recorded in his gospel the miracle of Jesus changing water into wine, it was part of a series of miracles that John took pains to document.  Far from existing to serve human need, the signs are focused on the identity of Jesus, the Son of God.

In the final verse of our passage is an important clue which John left for his readers: ‘What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him’ (v 11). The clue hints that more signs will follow the first. Like the first, the subsequent signs will follow a similar pattern of revealing Jesus’ glory and giving reason after reason for the audience to know and believe in Jesus.  When we read them together as a composite whole, they make a compelling case for following Jesus.

Something was at stake in the life of the church that John was concerned about and trying to address. John’s Gospel was crafted for members of the early church at a time when God’s people badly needed to be strengthened in their faith foundations. There was opposition, persecution, and skepticism directed at those who followed Jesus. Whether it was opposition from the local Jewish authorities, persecution from the Roman political machinery, or the lure of Greek philosophies, these words by John were necessary for the survival of the church as members tried to make sense of the claims of Jesus and the costs that came with following Him.

My work in this season of life is very tied to research and ministry amongst youth and youth adults in Singapore churches. One observation I have made is that we are in a season when the next generation is leaving our churches. This is a generation that is encountering deep skepticism about Christian faith. Given the many attractive alternatives, there is no compelling reason for them to stay or to go to church.  Those who remain often do so only because of what Jesus or the church can offer them!

Even more reason, young people today need to encounter Jesus the way he is portrayed in scripture and not to merely incorporate him into their lives as divine ATM, butler, or therapist to serve our pursuits and passions. If the church persistently offers interpretations of scripture which separate our understanding of the gospel from the drama of encountering the Jesus found in the Gospels, how then do we deepen the roots of the next generation and challenge them to follow Jesus? This is Jesus, the Lord of Lord who challenges his followers to follow him on his terms. This is not Jesus, our genie in a bottle who panders to the first world problems and psychological needs that we seem to be so beset by.

There is a beautiful hymn “Ancient Words” by Michael W. Smith, and its chorus goes, “Ancient words ever true, changing me, and changing you. We have come with open hearts, oh let the ancient words impart.”

The reality too often however is that we have changed the meaning and substance of these ancient words. Our hearts are open, but we have changed the meaning and we have not been changed. We have merely steered the discipleship challenge in scripture to support our needs and wants!

By doing this, we shortchange ourselves, our young people, and our congregation members. We also lose our moral authority to challenge cult groups and groups that teach heresy because we play the same interpretive game that they do!

What sort of corrective measures can we undertake to recapture the Reformation ideal of Sola Scriptura where more faithful readings, interpretations, and understandings of scripture can be found? Space only allows me to highlight one simple application, which is to cultivate the habit of reading scripture well.

The reality is that we don’t have the habit of reading Scripture well. When we read novels, examine legal documents, or watch movies, we naturally work out way from beginning to end. The reason why we take pains to do so is because meaning is found in reading or watching a text in its entirety. We do not take a favorite sentence from the book, a favorite clause from the legal document, or a favorite still shot from the movie and make whatever we want out of it.

Yet we do this in our Bible readings and interpretations all the time! We violate all the rules of reading a text or watching a movie sensibly in how we read and apply scripture.

What evangelical Christians thus need to do is to cultivate the habit of reading long portions of biblical texts over and over again. Alternatively, we could cultivate the habit of listening to long portions of biblical texts regularly and repeatedly. It could be listening to whole gospels, epistles, or even books in one session. Or it could be listening to a chapter multiple times over to understand the contours and features of the text or to discern for repeated themes and emphases.

In addition, we also need to realize that the wrong first question to ask any Bible passage we read is “What does this text mean to me?” The right first question to ask is “What does this text mean?” followed by “How does that meaning apply to me?

Habits and disciplines such as these help us to understand key points and main messages of biblical passages. They help us to develop deeper insights into God’s word and grow our commitment to Sola Scriptura from mere rhetoric to reality!


Dr Calvin Chong is Associate Professor, Educational Ministries at the Singapore Bible College. His teaching and research interests include orality studies, hermeneutics, new educational technologies, designing learning experiences, the impact of narratives on worldview and values, conflict resolution/reconciliation, and contemporary urban missions and youth issues.

A Rising New Incivility?

April 2018 Feature

Preamble

In contemporary society, a trend towards incivility seems to be rising. This article registers my observations about the shifts. I hope this article will invite many others to consider how we may pushback incivility for the sake of our society and for posterity.

Though the idea of civility may be traced to Confucius in the Eastern hemisphere, and Aristotle and Kant in the Western hemisphere, for this article, I take my reference from George Washington’ recommendation against displaying repulsive behavior and using vulgarity, whether in public or in private conversations (cf., Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation, 1888).

I define civility as relating to another person with respect in speech and conduct, regardless of their achievement, educational level, ethnicity, race, religion, social standing or acquired status of honor. Though the measure of civility, i.e., who defines right and wrong, is contextually dependent, my premise is that, people ought to have learned to respect others, in the light of a longstanding tradition in advocating for civility and in recognizing the equality of fellow humans.

Political Incivility?

While partisanship and political rudeness are not unfamiliar in America’s political landscape, Donald Trump’s presidential election and first year presidency have reached a new level of incivility. Trump degraded women, interrupted opponents in public debates, mocked the disabled, name-called, and used sexist comments on nations and women journalists and nations. After he was sworn into office, he has roused discord nationally and insulted various international leaders. Recently, he called two National Football League players who knelt at the singing of the national anthem, “son of a b—h.” A hyper-partisan media that uses blustering further aggravated the political incivility.

Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto leader of Myanmar, was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for standing up for the powerless. Yet, she denied Rohingyan “minority-ethnic cleansing,” and seemingly condoned the killing of Rohingyan Muslims in 2017. In 2013, she too denied occurrence of ethnic troubles in Rakhine.

To these incidents, we add the brawling and throwing of chairs against fellow politicians in recent Uganda parliamentary debate, occurred at the end of September 2017.

Should not the highest public office seek incumbents who would lead with impeccable character and etiquette to reflect the dignity of their office, despite the realities of corruptions and politicking? Is condoning injustice, and keeping silent about abhorrent, inhumane socio-political situations acceptable? Though politics manifests differently in America and in Myanmar, I am troubled about a consistent wave of political incivility.

Journalistic Civility?

When news readership expects fair and even coverage of significant and pertinent news globally, between August and September 2017, many news agencies in the USA gave focal attention to Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma, and almost to the exclusion of covering the even more devastating floods caused by monsoons in Sierra Leone, Nepal, India, and Bangladesh. Has the US media normalized disasters in other regions just like how they sometimes normalized violence in other regions?

Social Media Incivility?

The social media has seen incidents of incivility. The circulation of “fake news” via social media is what most people do not intentionally commit. While not verifying sources before forwarding to one’s social network may be harmless in some situations, fake news can produce consequences far deeper, even as it may add as a social cost.

Social media incivility is also observable in the circulation of viral pictures and videos, staged or un-staged, and the comments generated thereafter. The viral videos include the staged videos intended as advocacy for interest-groups, and the filmed, real life incidents of inappropriate social behaviors (e.g., bullying, sexual preying, cheating, and stealing).

The incivility with regards to viral videos pertains not just to filming someone else in public without their permission (thereby infringing another’s privacy) or shaming them thereafter on social media (which makes us vigilantes of sorts). Perpetuators of impropriety, injustice and violence against others have to be stopped. Alerting the public may deter some from committing impropriety, injustice and violence.

The incivility also pertains to 1) whether to make public the viral video, and 2) how viewers respond to incidents. The public may feel “safer” when incidents are made public. Yet, a viral circulation tends to affect lives, and injure persons and institutions, anger a crowd, risk breaking up social cohesion, and can cause other social problems.

Social Incivility?

Each society develops its culture in light of what it values and prioritises. I believe that given a choice, we would choose to live in a charitable, friendly, gracious, hospitable, kind, inclusive, and respectful society. Yet, have signs of social incivility crept up unnoticed in our hurried and driven lifestyle?

In our phone-distractible society, people check their phones in the middle of a conversation, at a meeting, or over dinner. On MRT rides, some commuters would blast their music without regard for other commuters. In fast-food and coffee outlets, boy and girls, who come from literate and well-to-do family backgrounds, use vulgarities like punctuation marks in their sentences.

Many passengers have had Grab and Uber drivers shouting rudely at them. Many are still aggravated over the SMRT technical problems, train delays, and the groundswell of discontentment with the SMRT CEO’s steep and swift pay increment, amid a fare increment that is not commensurate with a reliable, world-class operation.

On social medias, citizens respond curtly and with vulgarities to express their dissatisfaction and outrage. Name-calling, death threats, profanity, and all manner of insults are hurled at the perpetrator, the victims, and by-standers. In recent years, we have seen, on viral videos, by-standers watching bullying in schools without intervening.

I am betwixt between 1) my desire to encourage citizens to stand up for injustice or call out on inappropriate behaviors, and 2) my concerns about the unintended consequences that comments can stir in an already angry crowd.

On the one hand, as the saying goes – “he/she brought it on himself.” But on the other hand, no one deserves to be treated with violence. When persons in the viral videos are identified in public, some have “given them the finger.” Society judges victims too. The personal stigma, the social stigma, and the implications can continue for years, to the extent of destroying lives, families, institutions.

Postscript

To be sure, incivility is not a unique manifestation in our milieu. Rudeness, hate-speech, and shock jocks existed during Washington’s era too. Even then, philanthropic activities are also readily evident in our generation just as charity was evident in bygone eras. I perceive value in inquiring into the state and development of civility in our time. Is our milieu characterized as what Pankaj Mishra calls, the Age of Anger (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2017)? How did we get here in sociality? How can we pushback the trends of incivility in our time? May this article be a step in the exploration of what may be possible, for re-envisioning our world together.


Rev. Dr. Timothy T. N. Lim, Ph.D., is a Visiting Lecturer at the London School of Theology. His recent book, Ecclesial Recognition with Hegelian Philosophy, Social Psychology, and Continental Political Theory (Brill, 2017), adds to his other publications on christian unity, ecclesiology, interreligious dialogue, and theology.

The Urban Church and Creative Urbanism

March 2018 Feature

Can the church help envision the cities of the future?

The 21st Century world will be an urban world. The Asian Development Bank states in 2008 that over one billion people would have moved from the rural villages to the urban settings in Asia by 2030.

In another three decades, over 3 billion people in Asia (two-thirds of Asia) would have become urban dwellers.[1] Will we see an urban world where humans and God’s creation can flourish or one with a degraded environment where we live more like savages in the proverbial urban jungle?

Manuel Ortiz states that urban growth is more than a sociological reality; it is the fulfillment of God’s intentions since the beginning of time.[2]  The cultural mandate given to mankind to populate and steward the earth indicated that God has intended for human settlements to develop not only in the rural villages but also in the cities.

The earliest cities were built by the sons of Adam in the book of Genesis. The Bible traces how the history of mankind started in the garden but will end in the city.

Singapore is a small city, merely the size of a small district in some of these leading world-class cities in the world, but yet we are recognised today as global city. Singapore’s rise from a small fishing village to a world city, from the third world to the first, is well known now. It now aims to be a smart city in the 21st Century.

Conn and Ortiz note that cities seek to create a dynamic environment as an integrating centre of influence and power, as the “symbolic centres that concentrate, intensify and orchestrate culture’s re-creating forces”.[3] Lily Kong notes that the new Singapore cityscape with her iconic architecture of commerce and culture reflects the city-state’s aspiration and claim as a cultural centre, in line with the government’s integrated urban, national and global ambitions.[4]

However, the more important investment will be in shaping and moulding a people who value the spiritual beyond the aesthetics, who value the soul alongside these technocratic capability. Can a global city have humanity and a soul?

To grow as a city with creativity and cultural influence, we need a sense of spiritual transcendence. It is a call to grow our soul, to touch base with our humanity, to have the courage to fulfil our destiny. It will mean valuing the history of not only the city but the historicity of the man in the street, exploring the social dimensions of our city and probing deeper into our own shared consciousness.

Can a city be a place to foster humanity and community?

Urbanism as the distinctive culture of the city is exciting and evolving, and the creative innovators are constantly transforming and transmitting the urban culture in the city. The church can play a part in the emerging urbanism. The urban church as an organic and organised community is a great resource for developing creative and sustainable urbanism.

However the church would need to be strategically aligned and structured for transformational urban ministry with broader vision and to re-invent herself for the opportunities which will call for innovative solutions and daring responses.[5] The urban church has to step out of the comfort zone, to first engage at street level, to be the Church incarnate and present at street level, in order to contribute to the new urbanscape.

The urban church can consider the three spiritual identities and roles in urban missions, viz. as priests, prophets and pilgrims.

Firstly, the urban church can unleash her members as priests to point people to God and His Kingdom. In the city where the masses live lives of stress and desperation, loneliness and despair, there are many who are constantly seeking Transcendence and the meaning of their lives.

The church and her members as priests can mediate the presence of God by pointing people to Transcendence and divine guidance as they work in the city, whether they are in the public, private or people sectors, whether they are formulating policies, enacting legislation or executing them. By modeling faith in God and faithfulness at school or at work, the church affirms the creation or cultural mandate given by God to be productive as we care for and “till the land”.

Secondly, the urban church needs to speak up and speak out prophetically as we voice and envision the cities which are fit for human flourishing and habitation. Currently, there are over 830 million urban poor living in the urban slums in cities around the world. Such urban mismanagement and urban squalor dehumanises people and perpetuates the degradation of the urban environment and contributes to the ecological crisis and climate change in the world.

The urban church cannot be content with merely saving souls for heaven at the expense of caring for God’s creation and creatures on this side of eternity. We need to speak up prophetically as we envision what God’s shalom would look like for the cities in the world.

The urban church can reference the New Urban Agenda which has been adopted by world leaders as part of the United Nations’ new sustainable development goals, which seeks to provide the roadmap for building cities as engines of prosperity, centres of cultural and social well-being while protecting the environment.[6]

The urban church speaks and acts prophetically when it participates in policy inputs and planning at the municipal level, contribute to development of new urban spaces and lead in community building in the local neighbourhood. The urban church participates through mobilising the members and community with the wide range of skills, training and expertise to help shape the new urban landscape and urban culture.

Finally, the urban church can model for the city what God’s pilgrims look like, a community of strangers who have settled in the city and yet awaiting the arrival of the city, not built by human hands, whose architect and builder is God. The pilgrim community is a community of strangers bonded not necessarily by historical, national, ethno-linguistic or cultural ties.

The pilgrim community is created by faith in Christ, faith in a common eschatological future in the Kingdom of God. That is why it is an eschatological community with the responsibility and power to love one another and to serve one another, especially in the historical situations it finds itself including the times of human suffering.

Can the urban church model and translate the kingdom values of love, acceptance and compassion in new urban communities comprising migrants from over a hundred nationalities and ethnicities? Can the urban church help build communities of perseverance and resilience in times of disaster and crisis based on the pilgrim’s vision of serving one another as we journey together to the celestial city?

The church in the city can become an urban church when it develops an eschatological vision for transforming the city with the transcendent values of God’s Kingdom.[7] Just as Singapore as a city-state had announced the lofty aspiration of Singapore to become a global city serving beyond the Southeast Asian hinterland, the church in Singapore can aspire and envision itself to become an urban church, an Antiochan church serving the cities of Asia and beyond.


Notes:

[1] http://www.adb.org/news/op-ed/liveable-clean-green-and-resilient-reshaping-asia-s-booming-cities-takehiko-nakao

[2] Manuel Ortiz, “The Church and the City” in Manuel Ortiz and Susan Baker eds. The Urban Face of Mission, p. 43

[3] Harvey M Conn & Manuel Ortiz, Urban Ministry: The Kingdom, the City & the People of God, 2001: IVP Academic, p. 222

[4] Lily Kong, “Cultural Icons, Global City and National Identity” in Michael Nai-Chiu Poon, ed., Engaging Society: The Christian in Tomorrow’s Singapore.  2013: Trinity Theological College. Pp 24-40

[5] Lawrence Ko, “The Role of the Asian Church in Missions” in Bambang Budijanto ed., Emerging Missions Movements: Voices of Asia, 2010: Compassion  International and Asia Evangelical Alliance, pp 1-10

[6] http://www.un.org/sustanabledevelopment/blog/2016/10/newurbanagenda

[7] Lawrence Ko, “The Church and the Soul of a Global City: An Eschatological Vision for 21st C Singapore” in Sadiri Joy Tira & Tetsunao Yamamori eds., Scattered and Gathered; A Global Compendium of Diaspora Missiology, Regnum Books International, 2016, pp.360-366.


Lawrence Ko is the National Director of Singapore Centre for Global Missions. He has been a pastor, corporate trainer and missions director over the past 27 years, engaged with projects in human resource development, Christian media and environmentalism.

Resurgent Religiosity: a Problem or Opportunity?

February 2018 Feature

Concern over a Resurgent Religiosity

Every now and then, we hear persons expressing concern about the rising religiosity in Singapore and throughout the world. These commentators warn us that such a trend presents a significant threat to the peace, harmony and well-being of our society. They long for a strengthening of the secular ethos, which ensures that religious considerations remain effectively excluded from the public square.

This prevalent concern was expressed in a short letter entitled “Challenges in tackling exclusivism and rising religiosity” which appeared in the Straits Times Forum page on 24 Jan 2017. The author, Mr S. Ratnakumar, offered his view that “cultivating national identity, pride and loyalty will remain a challenge if the rising trend of religiosity is not reversed”. For Mr Ratnakumar (and others who share his opinion), we are currently engaged in a zero-sum game: If our devotion to our religious convictions is not watered down, our commitment to the well-being of our nation would be severely compromised.

First Response: Trend is Unlikely to be Reversed

We can make two responses to this position. The first is to say that the hope for the “rising trend of religiosity” to be “reversed” and for the secular ethos to be correspondingly strengthened is a rather forlorn one, given our current climate.

Secularism has its roots in the Western Enlightenment and the age of modernity, which the Enlightenment has spawned. It is based on the philosophical notion that reason is the final arbiter of what is true and good. A government operating according to the dictates of reason and guided by scientific findings (whether discovered through the hard sciences or social sciences) has therefore the right to determine the policies and rules of the nation.

Religions, on the other hand, are viewed by modernity as being involved not with matters of objective reason, but subjective beliefs and opinions. It follows that religions should have no influence over public matters. At best, they should be consigned to the private sphere of an individual’s system of belief.

It is, by now, trite to say that the age of modernity has, in many parts of the world, given way to the postmodern. To many, postmodernity has successfully exposed the myth of the neutrality and objectivity of our appeal to reason. It has shown that the way we reason and interpret our experiences is significantly influenced by our particular cultural presuppositions. It has demonstrated that the boundaries between an “objective” fact established by reason and a “subjective” opinion or belief are not as clear-cut as we previously supposed.

With this dethroning of reason as the final arbiter of truth and morality, the foundations of secularism have been severely undermined. Those who appeal to reason as the basis for their fitness to rule will increasingly face the question, “Whose system of rationality are you relying on?”

This rebellion against the “reason” of the privileged class is exemplified in a comment made by former British minister Michael Gove, a key supporter of the Brexit movement. He was once asked whether there was even one reputable economist who supported the idea of Britain leaving the EU. His reply captured well the mood of the majority, “People in this country have had enough of experts.”

This weakening of secularism has been accompanied, in many places, by a rising religiosity—one which is increasingly dismissive of the boundaries placed upon religion by the age of modernity. This trend is likely to continue, given the continual dispelling of the mystical aura surrounding the “meta-narrative” of secularism, leading to the rise of other ways of conceiving our world and ordering our lives.

Second Response: A Resurgent Religiosity which Secures Public Well-Being  

What should our response be to the trend outlined above? Some will, no doubt, fall into despair and see a future in which our societies and nations inevitably fragment and descend into conflict.

There is, however, some cause for optimism. A resurgent religiosity represents not only a problem, but also an opportunity. Religious beliefs and values can contribute to the public well-being and strengthening of our national cohesion.

The major world religions are not monolithic systems. They have complex bodies of teaching, some of which pull in one direction, and others in another. Inevitably, there will be teachings about the need to exclude or even mistreat those on the outside. But if a religion is truly universal in scope, there will also be imperatives for its members to live in harmony with all human beings, and to respect and bless them, regardless of whether they are followers of that religion or not.

In fact, if one does a “postmodern” digging into the genealogy of the cherished values of secularism (e.g. freedom, justice, equality), we find that they arise out of religious roots. While outwardly rebelling against many aspects of their Christian heritage, the thought leaders of the Enlightenment were also (consciously or otherwise) drawing upon that heritage to advocate what should be true and right.

Religion, therefore, can be a potent force to promote justice and equality for all, as well as freedom and tolerance. The key lies in how the followers of the various religions make sense of the complexity of their faiths and the tensions contained within, in order to determine what truly is at the heart of their belief.

So, while every religion has its extremists who see their faith as mandating them to wreck death and destruction on outsiders, it also has adherents who seek to conceptualise their faith in a way which requires them to respect the rights of others to follow their own paths and to ensure that their interests and well-being are fully protected.

This second group is not made up of the religious “liberals” of a bygone age, who freely jettison key aspects of their belief in order to force their faith to fit into the procrustean bed of modernity. Rather, they are religiously conservative people, who find imperatives and resources within their faith traditions to work for the common good in their religiously diverse societies.

Their efforts represent our hope for the future. They deserve all the support and encouragement we can give them, as they struggle with the extremists in their party for the right to determine what their faith is about.

With the waning influence of secularism, we will probably have to learn to rely less on its norms to promote peace and the common good. The major world religions will have to do more to fill this gap, by providing the motivation, based on their particular teachings, for their followers to be loyal citizens of their countries and contributing members of their societies.

Will the resurgent religiosity of our time turn out to be a problem or opportunity? We pray with all our hearts that it will be a powerful impetus for peace, harmony and the well-being of all in our postmodern age.



Dr Leow Theng Huat teaches theology and Church history at Trinity Theological College. He is a local preacher in the Methodist Church in Singapore, and a member of Wesley Methodist Church. 

Christianity and the University

January 2018 Feature

When the early modern universities were established in Europe between the 15th and 18th centuries, they were centres of research, expertise and progressive thinking. During those times there was a characteristic thirst for knowledge of all kinds (e.g., law, medicine, science, mathematics, rhetoric and theology) and academic freedom in speech and writing was supremely sacrosanct.

Many pioneering university academics were also devout Christians and their works were inspired by, and often inseparable from, Scripture. Indeed, we can envisage a time when the university was the place where discipleship and learning combined uniquely into a single entity: scholarship in the name of human and spiritual advancement.

In many cases, today’s global universities are equally prestigious and studious but their connection with religious and spiritual matters has either declined, disappeared or never existed. For some, these are matters of grave concern.

In his impactful book titled, Ministering in the Secular University: A Guide for Christian Professors and Staff,1 author Joseph McRae Mellichamp, identifies two reasons for what he calls the ‘demise of Christian thought in universities.’ These are: (i) the inability of academics to agree on the appropriate role of Christianity in their contexts, and (ii) the lack of engagement by Christians in the fight to keep Christian ideas in the university’s marketplace of ideas.

Mellichamp continues with a stinging reprimand: “Christian professors and, to a lesser extent, staff have stood by and allowed Christianity to be pushed aside often without “lifting a finger” or, more literally, “raising a voice” to oppose what was happening.’

In my opinion, even though Scripture teaches us to submit ourselves to our leaders’ authority for Christ’s sake (Hebrews 13:7; 1 Peter 2:13), one of the biggest challenges facing Christian communities on university campuses today is the silent acquiescence of the ways of the secular, pragmatic world in the belief that ‘making waves’ is a barrier to full professorship.

When we acquiesce, we passively accept something without necessarily consenting to it or we accept something without protest. At its worst, is acquiescence any different from surrender?

At times, it seems like a self-inflicted paralysis borne, I think, from a lack of alternatives. We just ‘do’ (or not) because we have no other viable means of doing otherwise. This surely isn’t the Christian way given the urgency and necessity of the gospel.

Christian Engagement with the University

As Christians we are commanded to go in Jesus’ name to spread the good news and God’s peace (Matthew 28:18-20, John 20:21). The great commission applies equally to professors, researchers and staff at universities. As influential and respected members of society, Christian professors especially have many precious opportunities to witness for Christ in their offices, classes, meetings and writing.

Vinoth Ramachandra2 of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (https://www.ifesworld.org) suggests a two-pronged plan for Christian engagement within universities:

  • Forming learning and witnessing Christian communities, comprising students, researchers, faculty and administrators, who engage courageously and dialogically with the diverse academic disciplines and conversations that constitute university life (this entails the crossing of status hierarchies and replicating in universities what can be done in local churches); and
  • Seeking to influence universities so that they become more human-friendly, just and ecologically-sensitive spaces in which to study and work. This implies that we care about the moral, intellectual and spiritual flourishing of individuals, and also of groups and systems.

Undoubtedly, this is an ambitious and far-reaching proposal with great transformative potential. But I would add two conditions relating to its implementation.

First, we need to understand that unlike informal conversations that can quickly pass, true dialogue is exploratory and helps build lasting relationships. Second, I believe we need even more action to unite Christianity and the University over the long-term.

While I fully recognise and support the ministries and evangelism of Cru (https://www.cru.org), IFES, ALPHA (https://www.alpha.org) and other on-campus small groups, they crucially need the intellectual, spiritual and moral support of others both within and beyond universities to be meaningful and successful.

As an illustration, there are necessary roles to play and functions to perform by the Church through regular intercessory prayer for teachers, professors and students, individual supplications and small-group meetings that model and inspire local missions and community (koinonia); by Christian parents and friends through encouragement, shepherding resources and modelling dialogue on widespread issues; and through schools and society (more broadly) by fostering an active concern for justice, equity, epistemology (the theory of knowledge, especially concerning its methods, validity and scope, and the distinction between justified belief and opinion) and ethics (the moral principles governing a person’s behaviour and actions).

Universities are, and will continue to be, sites of tremendous personal, communal and professional growth. They can also present us with opportunities to teach and learn in unexpected and totally surprising ways but we have to be open to, and prepared for, God’s calling and the Holy Spirit’s empowering for this to happen.

I’m suggesting that this preparation in terms of content (theological and discipline-based), and qualities of mind and character, might best begin at an early age and must be continually supported by others outside of the university.

Of course, some might disagree. For sure, God can and does work in miraculous ways on campuses and I have read several uplifting testimonies from students who came to Christ while at university through evangelistic outreach and then went on to serve the Lord after graduation in various work-place appointments.

However, in my experience, testimonies from university professors and members of staff about coming to Christ through their work and living out the Christian life on campus are far less popular or common. That’s a pity.

In closing, I believe the quality, extent and influence of Christianity at the university should be a priority for the Church because what happens there often carries over into a myriad of other professions in the public square where there is high contact with other people (e.g., teaching, medicine, law, social work etc.).

For whatever reasons, Christian professors and other members of staff at universities face a crucial fork in their professional and spiritual journeys.

One path unites vocation, work and ministry in biblical terms.3 Along the other lies fragmentation and sterility that comes from forcing our work and faith lives apart.

The choice is ours: in one direction lies our duty and our joy, the other is potentially burdensome and often too harsh to bear.

 


Notes

  1. Mellichamp, J. McR. (1997). Ministering in the secular university: A guide for Christian professors and staff.Carrollton, TX: Lewis And Stanley.
  2. Ramachandra, V. (2016). Christ and the university. In Engaging the campus: Faith and service in the academy (pp. 37-65). Singapore: Fellowship of Evangelical Students.
  3. Stevens, R. P. (1999). The other six days: Vocation, work and ministry in biblical perspective.Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

Dr. Phillip A. Towndrow (Ed.D., Durham) is a church lay leader with extensive experience in small group work, discipling and Christian education. He is currently a teacher, teacher-educator, and educational researcher at a tertiary-level institution in Singapore where he specialises in New Media Literacies, Teacher Professional Learning, and Pedagogy and Classroom Practices. Phillip is also the author of the ETHOS Engagement Series booklet, ‘Education and Society: A Christian View of Education in Singapore‘. 

Religious Tolerance and Limited State Bureaucracy

December 2017 Feature Article

Religious tolerance is a tenuous legacy of democracy as state bureaucracy instinctively extends its power to regulate all aspects of the life of its citizens. As such, a moral citizenry needs to be motivated by cogent arguments in order that it may press for institutional safeguards which would prevent state bureaucracy from encroaching on religious freedom. In this regard, John Locke is a towering figure in providing philosophical foundations for a limited state bureaucracy that respects the independence of religious institutions and promotes religious tolerance.

For Locke, man needs protection for his life, liberty and property. It is essential that every man enjoys natural rights to these goods in order that he may serve society. These rights are claimed on the basis of natural law, that is, God’s law prescribed to all men at creation. Since these rights are natural, they are inherent to every individual. As inalienable, they cannot be transferred or forfeited. Locke emphasizes that these rights are pre-political; they are not given by the state, nor can the state take them away.

The necessity for collective protection of private property and adjudication of social conflict requires a ‘social contract’ to form a civil government. Locke emphasizes in his Second Treatise on Civil Government that only state authority, exemplified by the magistrate, had its origins in the social contract. Furthermore, only part of a person’s rights is surrendered to the state in the contract.

The logic of Locke’s argument for a limited state leading to relative political and religious freedom is encapsulated in his classic work, A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689). The Letter provides a framework for peaceful coexistence in the aftermath of the destructive Thirty Years War (1618-1648) and the English Civil War (1642-1651).

Locke was also fully aware of the struggle of the church against the state after the Restoration of the monarchy. Erastianism was then the accepted ideology for the state which wanted control over ecclesiastical matters where the crown controls the cross, and the church is merely a handmaiden of the state.

State bureaucratic control has proven to be destructive for the church when the paternalistic authority of the crown emasculates the power of the clergy and suffocates spiritual initiative from the laity. Furthermore, violence is brought to bear upon any nonconformist or dissenter to royal patronage. They could be fined, have their property seized and even be thrown into prison.

Locke’s Letter was an exercise to defend freedom for the church to manage its internal affairs and to fulfill its spiritual vocation. Since the debate was directed at state religious bureaucracy, Locke naturally argued from premises that were informed by Christian faith. Locke gives four reasons for religious tolerance:

First, Locke challenges traditional alliance between the crown and church where common believers and the clergy submits to the crown with its implicit claim to infallibility. However, this hierarchy is unacceptable to Locke on grounds that if human knowledge remains uncertain, it is wrong for the authorities to enforce fallible truth claims and beliefs. Locke’s caution springs from his awareness that human intellectual capacity and moral discernment is vulnerable to corruption because of vested interests.

Second, Locke argues for toleration as this was the example set by the Apostles. He emphasizes in his Letter Concerning Toleration, “If the Gospel and the apostles may be credited, no man can be a Christian without charity and without that faith which works, not by force, but by love…gathering them [the nations] into His Church, not armed with the sword, or other instruments of force, but prepared with the Gospel of peace and with the exemplary holiness of their conversation.”[1]

Religious compulsion enforced through ecclesiastical decrees which are no more than human responses to mediated revelation is inappropriate. Locke looked to public truth arrived at through reason and logic instead of religious authority founded on dogma to provide a secure and sufficient foundation for social order. He argues that the state rightly exercises its authority in protection of life and property, but as a fallible human institution it should refrain from imposing religious beliefs.

Third, Locke appeals for religious toleration for pragmatic reasons. On the one hand, the recent history of England has demonstrated that coercion to compulsory uniformity only leads to social unrest. On the other hand, toleration promotes peace and prosperity.

In a lengthy passage he argues that matters of faith are beyond the authority of the magistrate and that compulsion towards outward conformity only undermines sincerity which is essential for genuine faith, “the care of souls cannot belong to the civil magistrate, because his power consists only in outward force; but true and saving religion consists in the inward persuasion of the mind, without which nothing can be acceptable to God. And such is the nature of the understanding, that it cannot be compelled to the belief of anything by outward force.”[2]

Fourth, Locke argues for tolerance based on the rights of conscience. It was evident to him that genuine faith must be sincere. “It is in vain for an unbeliever to take up the outward show of another man’s profession. Faith only, and inward sincerity, are the things that procure acceptance with God.” That is to say, sincerity rather than truth itself is the effective criterion for salvation.

Locke therefore asserts that “the care of souls cannot belong to the civil magistrate, because his power consists only in outward force: but true and saving religion consists in the inward persuasion of the mind, without which nothing can be acceptable to God.”[3] Locke stresses the state should respect the church as a voluntary society of men “joining themselves together of their own accord, in order to the public worshipping of God…No member of a religious society can be tied with any other bonds but what proceed from the certain expectation of eternal life. A church then is a society of members voluntarily uniting to this end.”[4]

A caveat is here in order – the Lockean argument for freedom of conscience should not be taken as an excuse for unfettered individualism. On the contrary, Locke’s argument for freedom is a premise for responsible freedom that was already an essential element of human relationships before the social contract. Obedience to one’s conscience is not an act of withdrawal from society so much as an act of freedom that empowers the believer to take the initiative to serve society.

As Robert George explains, religious freedom enables members of society to organize and carry out various welfare works, including health and educational services, which effectively limits the scope of government and the power of the state. “Religion provides authority structures and, where it flourishes and is healthy, is among the key institutions of civil society providing a buffer between the individual and the state.”[5]

For Locke, the right to conscience is the right to do what one judges to be one’s obligations to fellowmen in the light of one’s religious commitment.


[1] John Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration ed. Ian Shapiro, pp. 215, 217.

[2] A Letter Concerning Toleration ed. Ian Shapiro, pp. 218-219.

[3] A Letter Concerning Toleration ed. Ian Shapiro, pp. 232, 219.

[4] John Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration ed. Ian Shapiro, pp. 220-221.

[5] Robert George, Conscience and its Enemies (ISI Books, 2013), p. 114.


Dr Ng Kam Weng is Research Director of Kairos Research Centre in Kuala Lumpur. Previously, he had been a fellow at the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies and a member of the Center for Theological Inquiry at Princeton University. From 1989 to 1992 he taught at the Malaysia Bible Seminary Graduate School. He has a PhD from Cambridge University.

One Vocabulary, Different Universes

November 2017 Feature

It is increasingly common to hear or read words such as “exclusivism”, “inclusivism”, and “pluralism” in public discourse whether it is used by academics, activists or politicians. It is assumed that everyone is on the same page; thus the terms are insufficiently, if not rarely defined. This is not helpful, and in fact problematic for Christians whose traditions and thinkers have been using such words, with well-defined understanding.

In his book Christianity at the Religious Roundtable, missiologist Timothy Tennent discusses the above terms, setting out the general Christian understanding of the words. Exclusivism is a position taken by conservative and evangelical Christians that stands on three non-negotiables: the absolute and unique authority of Jesus, His life, death and resurrection as the decisive hinge of history, and the necessity for repentance and faith in Jesus for salvation.

This position is represented by Henrik Kraemer (The Christian Message in a Non-Christian World, 1938) and, more recently, Ronald Nash (Is Jesus the Only Savior? 1994), among many others. This is also the position that many Protestant churches in Singapore have taken.

Inclusivism, as a theological perspective, accepts the first two of the three non-negotiables of exclusivism, but not the third. This position has led to the idea of “anonymous Christians” (Karl Rahner), people who belong to other faiths but nevertheless experience salvation in Christ even though they may not know Christ or the Bible, or join the Christian faith.

Pluralism rejects all three non-negotiables of exclusivism. A well-known proponent of this view is John Hick (An Interpretation of Religion, 1989), who argues that all religions provide means of salvation and that Christianity is just one of many viable faiths, and not necessarily the most advanced of them.

It is in the light of this background that Christians have difficulties uncritically accepting public statements made by thought leaders in non-Christian, and especially secular, spaces. The politically correct way of thinking is that exclusivism is bad, inclusivism is good, and pluralism is what we should embrace for a peaceful and harmonious society.

But many questions have to be asked to seek clarifications and for all to try to be on the same page so that we can really engage in dialogue and arrive at mutual understanding. Take, for instance, the term “religious harmony”. I was once asked by a journalist what I thought about it, and I had to ask the journalist how she would define the term. She was at a loss.

I then explained that if “religious harmony” meant a harmony of religions, then I did not think the churches would be in favour of that. However, if the term meant harmonious relationships between people of different faiths seeking to live in peace and mutual understanding, then the churches support it because that is also what the Bible teaches.

There are two kinds of exclusivism; theological and social. This is where confusion and misunderstanding can arise. There is a tendency to confuse both aspects in one single idea, as if to say that those who stand for theological exclusivism (as per exclusivism as defined above) are also for social exclusivism. This cannot be further from the truth.

This year is the 500th anniversary of the Reformation; Protestant Christians commemorate the clear doctrinal exclusivity expressed in the Reformation mottoes: Christ alone, Scripture alone, grace alone, faith alone. This is based on scriptural teachings on the uniqueness of Christ, His life, and the salvation found in Him alone (Jn 14:6; Acts 4:12; 1 Tim 2:5; Rev 17:14).

But Scripture also teaches social inclusivity. Jesus taught that we should love our neighbours as we love ourselves (Mt 22:39; Lk 10:25-37). We are to live peaceably with all (Rom 12:18), and help and serve the poor and needy in society (Mt 25:35-36; Jam 1:27). Theological exclusivism does not mean social isolationism but stands together with social outreach and compassionate and missional involvement in society.

So, are Christians exclusivists or inclusivists? Such a question does not recognise the nuances of Christian thought and practice. In reality Christians are theologically exclusive and socially inclusive. To not recognise this is to collapse the ideas to suggest that social inclusivism is the same as theological inclusivism (as defined earlier), and that theological exclusivism is the same as social exclusivism. This will hinder any attempt at actual dialogue and understanding.

This also brings us to the question of whether our society is best defined as pluralistic, as some have argued. The problem is that pluralism, as many Christian thinkers in our midst understand it, is a philosophy. That we live in a diverse society is an observable fact, but to say that we are a pluralistic society is to impose a certain philosophy or underlying perspective.

One is a sociological observation, the other is a religious statement. There is a difference, as theologian Lesslie Newbigin has shown, between plurality and pluralism.

When people of different faiths (including secularists and those who do not profess any faith) engage in discussions, and there is social discourse, our different ideas about words, phrases and terms can become a hindrance to true communication and understanding if they are not sufficiently defined. We may not all agree on the definitions but we must at least understand and appreciate what is meant by words that may have different meanings for different people.

It is not like the language of mathematics, which in most cases transcends culture and society. Russian, Chinese, Italian and Indonesian mathematicians all understand one another when they discuss mathematics (not necessarily other things) because they use a well-defined mathematical vocabulary.

But in general social discourse, our lips may say the same words, but our minds may have different ideas. We may use the same vocabulary (in a superficially understood way), but we may be talking from different universes.

We may not agree on a single vocabulary accepted by all, but we must define and explain what we mean when we use certain words, to reduce misunderstanding and confusion and to promote real engagement.



Bishop Emeritus Robert Solomon served as Bishop of The Methodist Church in Singapore from 2000-2012. He had served previously as a medical doctor, church pastor, principal of Trinity Theological College and president of the National Council of Churches of Singapore. He now has an active itinerant ministry of preaching and teaching in Singapore and abroad.